Trotsky is a young man with a job few people would envy. A drone at a neuromarketing company, he spends all day prostrate in a pod - a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine - that records the way his brain lights up when he views images of new products. The images are more appealing than real life, so much so that he begins to think he's seeing them everywhere: sports cars, cellphones and sunglasses that vanish when he touches them.
Trotsky is the sad anti-hero of Vancouver author Peter Darbyshire's new novel, The Warhol Gang, a violent, darkly comic satire of our media-saturated society. Although it may garner comparisons to Fight Club, its unmistakably contemporary touches make Palahniuk's book feel dated.
The book is Darbyshire's long-awaited follow-up to his 2003 debut novel, Please, which earned the K.M. Hunter emerging artist award for literature and the ReLit Award for best independent novel of the year. In the gap between books, Darbyshire has kept busy: An editor at the Vancouver Province, he is also tends a blog where he posts Shrapnel comics, witty mash-ups of photos and text.
Please featured a young man wandering in a surreal urban landscape, and The Warhol Gang in some ways picks up where his last book left off. Its main character is lost in a dystopian, unnamed Canadian city so image-obsessed that the distinction between the real and the imaginary is vanishing.
A loner whose chief childhood memory is being abandoned by his parents in a mall, Trotsky can't seem to figure out who he is. He fantasizes about owning the shiny products he views in his pod, and begins seeing visions of them. When he complains to a job counsellor that he hallucinates at work, she points out: "That's part of your job description."
As a protagonist, Trotsky is passive, a cog caught up in a vast marketing machine too insidious and complex for him to fathom. Acquisitive and fickle, over-stimulated and impressionable, he mirrors consumer society's worst traits.
He goes on a quest to find something truly real, and encounters a ragtag "resistance" cell in a cavern underneath the mall. He is swayed to join them, although their goals are unclear. "So what exactly does the resistance resist?" Trotsky asks a rebel leader named Che. "Everything we can," Che responds.
Trotsky meets his match in a calculating woman named Holiday. In contrast with his pliable nature, she lives in pursuit of one thing: to be the star of cellphone and security videos, which get instantly uploaded after any violent accident. "I'm the Marilyn Monroe of security videos," she says. The two team up with the resistance, going on gonzo, destructive missions in crowded stores, leaving with battered bodies that remind them that they're alive. Their set pieces become increasingly explosive; one breathtakingly ultraviolent attack on a busy Holt Renfrew, featuring expensive perfume used as a chemical weapon, won't easily fade from memory.
Darbyshire has a gift for imagining the absurd. In one scene, Trotsky shoots fellow employees with a fake gun during a planned "rampaging co-worker drill." (He argues with his boss about whether he's allowed to shoot workers on their breaks.) In another aside, he recalls his father's "deluxe funeral service, the one where you hire extra people to grieve."
Some of the book's more experimental flourishes don't quite resonate. Each short chapter begins with a "play" icon instead of a number, as if we are to think of them as video clips. This may be overstating the book's cinematic qualities a tad.
Still, The Warhol Gang paints an uncomfortably plausible picture of consumer society in the not-too-distant future. Its characters yearn for the genuine, no matter how ultimately illusory their pursuit may be.
Sarah Barmak is a Toronto freelance ideas and culture journalist.